Look at this image. What is Superman doing?
Yes, that’s what I first thought too. I’m sure we’re not alone. Given what we know about Superman and his adventures, a second look enables us to realise he’s not trying to extinguish the light coming from that bad guy with his bodily fluids. We know that superhero cartoons don’t include that type of behaviour (at least ones with classic superheroes!). We know that it wouldn’t be befitting for the character of Superman even if they did. We search for other explanations for what is actually happening and (eventually) make more probable judgments based on our understanding of context.
Imagine, however, that you didn’t know anything about Superman. Or superhero cartoons. Or hoses, for that matter. If this were the case, our brains wouldn’t be able to connect this apparent situation with the hidden context. Our non-existent background knowledge wouldn’t fill in the gaps like it did above. What you see would be what you know. We would lose the cartoonist and writer’s intended meaning.
This same problem with context and background knowledge applies to our learners in their exposure to texts they encounter in their university classes, the news and even blogs. So often authors utilise references to key figures, events and places to demonstrate and strengthen their points. When our learners read texts they are assigned or even given for language practice, these contextual references are often missed or skipped over, leaving comprehension superficial and inadequate.
The “Contextualiser” role gives learners practice identifying and using contextual references in texts to help them better understand what they read. It, along with five other specialised roles in the collaborative reading circles activity (I refer to as “academic reading circles” or “ARC”), have greatly contributed to improving my students’ reading abilities at higher levels.
By attending my workshop at either the TESL Canada 2012 Conference or TESOL France Colloquium, we will take a closer look at all six roles (Discussion Leader/Devil’s Advocate, Visualiser, Connector, Summariser, Highlighter & Contextualiser) and how they can help your students with their higher level reading too.
So, before this date comes, how do you teach your students about context?
TESL Canada 2012 Conference – Friday, October 12, 9:00AM – 10:30AM
Abstract: We will explore how academic adaptations of literature circles transform reading struggles for EAP learners into engagement with material and consequently stronger comprehension. Together, we will investigate practical examples of noticing vocabulary patterns, thinking critically, making meaningful connections and ultimately improving text comprehension in this individual and collaborative activity.
TESL France Colloquium – Sunday, November 18, 12:45PM – 1:45PM
Abstract: Reading in higher education contexts requires learners to understand complex texts well enough to use in conjunction with graded assignments. This can be a definite struggle with regard to not only linguistics and culture, but also length and volume. In this workshop we explore how pedagogical adaptations of literature circles (Daniels 2002) to academic purposes can transform this struggle into learner engagement and stronger comprehension. Together, we will try out practical examples of noticing vocabulary patterns, thinking critically, making meaningful connections and ultimately improving text comprehension in an individual and collaborative activity.